Random Treasure: Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy is an account of adventures in the world of antiques. Among many objects described, the stand-out items are two remarkable objects made five hundred years apart.
First, a small statue of Saint John the Evangelist, a masterpiece of late Gothic sculpture, carved in walnut wood in the early fifteenth century by the court sculptor to the Duke of Burgundy. Looted by French Revolutionaries from a village church around 1794 and thought by scholars to have been destroyed, it re-appeared in 2012 in a small local auction in Leith, Edinburgh. The statue was almost miraculously recognised, taken back to its former home in a Burgundy village church for a brief but emotional reunion with another surviving figure from the same group, and then re-sold in Paris for over £200,000.
Second, a ceramic jug, made in 1926 in a collaboration between Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, the two founding fathers of the British studio pottery movement. The only known piece that the two potters signed jointly, it emerged unrecognised in the same Edinburgh saleroom where the statue was found, and was auctioned in London for over £14,000.
The book explores the history of these two objects, and how they bottomed-out as random treasure, unloved and remote from their identities. The author recounts his excitement and wonder at spotting, buying and identifying them, and the difficulties and anxieties involved in seeking expert advice and finding suitable outlets for re-sale.
Some snippets of autobiography are included to show how the author’s background has influenced his development as a collector. There are also sections touching more generally upon aspects of collecting and the antiques trade from the punter’s standpoint: viewing and buying at auction; how auctioneers and bidders behave and interact in the saleroom; problems of authentication and provenance; how objects acquire value in the market; and the influence of aesthetics and fashion. These sections are illustrated with brief accounts of other pieces of random treasure discovered over six decades of collecting.
The author, a retired manager and small business owner, is keen to demonstrate to readers his credentials as an Everyman – an ordinary low-budget collector and spare-time dealer whose record of discovery and success might enthuse and inspire others with similar interests. To establish the credibility he seeks, he alternates narrative chapters with investigative chapters. Is any special aptitude or inborn talent needed for success in antique buying and selling? What are the characteristics of a collector? When and how does a harmless pastime become an obsession? What characterises normal behaviour among buyers and auction-goers, and how do the author and the book’s readers measure up against normality? How does the hobbyist collector deal with the moral and ethical ambiguities which arise from buying objects cheaply and selling them for large profits?
A chapter summary of Random Treasure is here
Reproductions of the images in Random Treasure are here